Humanum ex machina: Translation in the post-global, posthuman world

Mark O’Thomas

Translation sits at the epicentre of the biotech era’s exponential growth. The terms of reference of this discipline are increasingly unstable becoming as humans interface with machines, become melded with them, and ultimately become a networked entity alongside other networked entities. In this brave new world, the posthuman offers a critical perspective that allows us to liberate our thinking in new ways and points towards the possibility of a translation theory that actively engages with other disciplines as a response to disciplinary hegemony. This article looks at how technology has changed and is changing translation. It then explores the implications of transhumanism and the possibilities for a posthuman translation theory. Ultimately, the survival of translation studies will be contingent on the survival of translation itself and its ability to question its own subjective, posthuman self.

Table of contents

There is a scene in Alex Garland’s film Ex Machina (2015) where it becomes apparent that Kyoko, the beautiful Japanese personal assistant of technology Wunderkind Nathan Bateman, is a perfect robotic replica of a human, but with one significant flaw: she lacks the power of speech. This scene mirrors the core research problem of artificial intelligence (AI) over the past fifty years, because human language stands as the last, near-unattainable bastion that once cracked can open the floodgates to unimaginable consequences. In the film, these consequences come to the fore when it transpires that Kyoko is nothing more than an early prototype to the much more sophisticated Ava, whose advanced communication skills begin to problematize notions of humanity, consciousness and sentience. Like many other treatments of possible worlds where technological advance becomes linked with a dystopian end of humanity, Garland’s future is one where advancements in language processing pose a direct threat to human life. Ava’s ability to pass the Turing test gives way to more familiar plot lines that see her attacking the creators who made her while en route to a new sense of sentient freedom.

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